Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media
Photo: Peter Stog
Stephen Bloom is a lifelong artist who would probably take issue with the term “lifelong.” It’s not merely because he is humble (which he is), or a precise speaker (which he also is), but because his life as an artist experienced a pause of nearly two decades.
In that time, Stephen raised a family, drank cappuccinos at LOKL, became an avid cyclist, and established a career in cybersecurity which brought him onto the cutting edge of hacking and artificial intelligence.
He also spent some time in Japan. More on that later.
Exciting enough for anyone—to say nothing of the excitement of fatherhood—but part of him still longed for that time in his life when creativity was almost its purpose.
With no formal art training outside of a summer arts program at Wesleyan during his high school years, the question of how to fully re-engage with art was a recurring one. There was simply too much going on to really sit down and answer it.
Regrets started to take root: why didn’t I go to art school? Why didn’t I follow the full route?
Can I be that person again, or is he gone?
Like so many questions in life, the answer came not from fighting with himself or living in the past, but from being in the here and now, being open and calm enough to experience inspiration once again, and realizing that, although he may be a different person now than he was then...
...the artist never left.
Today, Stephen has established the beginnings of a second career with his art. His social media game is strong, his Etsy store is poppin’, and he’s receiving the recognition that virtually all artists crave.
I wanted to know about the difficulties, the moments of doubt, the joys and gratitudes of rediscovering that access to the soul which art permits.
As it so often does when we’re young, Stephen’s idea of himself at the time—along with his future—seemed both set and simple. He would draw and paint, and that expression would generate the meaning of his life.
“I didn’t like going with all of the norms of society,” he says. Stephen describes his early artwork as, “very emotional, sometimes angry at certain things, sort of a feeling of wanting to shake things up a little bit, typical for that age.”
While it may be typical, it was also sincere and lasting. Art was not to be an infatuation, briefly obsessed over and then forgotten like last week’s weather. Rather, these feelings yielded a great volume of work.
Stephen’s early inspirations ranged from classic album covers like Yes’s “Fragile” and “Leftoverture” by Kansas to the Lord of the Rings and Leonardo da Vinci. Through mainly complex line drawings, his style and inclinations as an artist started to emerge.
I asked him about his chosen media. “I’ve done [drawing] since I was a kid, and I seem to have some kind of natural affinity for it.”
“I never really had any real training in something like oil painting, and I would like to, but I guess I started with the things that are a little easier to learn.”
His answer becomes a prescription. When it comes to drawing, “all you need is a pencil or a pen.” The connection to his life decisions becomes evident, the calm self-reflection giving way to a gentle but cloying regret.
“I thought that was going to be my life’s work, in art and drawing and painting, and I didn’t go that direction in the end. Never went to art school, and I sort of regretted leaving [art] behind over the years.”
This lack of “real training” is a recurrent theme in our conversation.
all you need is a pencil or a pen
In those intervening years, art stayed on like a light in his mind. Post-college and into his early career, Stephen continued drawing when he could. His work took him to Japan for a time as a consultant, where he even did some illustration work for a magazine.
Something else notable occurred in Japan: Stephen met his wife, Chio.
Throughout this formative time, Stephen absorbed an idea that was already intuitive to him: “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”
After returning to the United States, though art was on pause, he continued “doing it right.” In his early 30s while raising two sons, Stephen obtained his MBA and eventually achieved positions of prominence in the fields of technology, marketing, and most recently, cybersecurity.
Overall, “I was a little busy!”
The work was stimulating, cutting-edge, and important, fighting off attacks from hackers in an increasingly A.I.-driven world.
Meanwhile, cycling had become like a second passion; Stephen covered hundreds of miles across northern New Jersey and New York City, and even built his own bicycle.
Most importantly, his family was happy and safe, his older son pursuing a possible career in the visual arts and design.
Nothing was missing. It was the perfect time to pick up the sketchpad again.
After almost twenty years, at age 49, “I did start painting and drawing again, just completely as a hobby.”
But was it that simple?
Initial attempts at turning an artistic idea into a reality yielded results that were “kind of clunky, kind of awkward. It’s just not coming together.”
“Did you ever worry that you’d lost your eye?” I asked.
“Definitely. It’s hard to do anything creative from a standing start, and especially if you’re in that work mode which is focused on emails, calls, and power points. It's really hard to switch gears in your brain.”
Additionally, Stephen became conscious of what he calls a “technique gap”: perceived deficits in his artistic ability, possibly as a result of a lack of formal training.
“There's only so many techniques that I actually know how to do. When I look at the stuff that I am doing, the work that I’ve done, and then I compare it to other artists I see out there, you know, either in person at a gallery or exhibit or just online, I always feel this incredible gap in technique...in my ability to render really deep colors or reflections.”
Stephen was conscious of this supposed gap earlier in life, but even more succinctly as he pondered this return to art.
Where some people would be deterred by such a gap, something inside of him saw it as a challenge, to do what his younger self wouldn’t or couldn’t do: to fill that gap, and restart his development as an artist.
The first step was acknowledging that, at 49, he was no longer the person he was at 19 or even 29. Looking at artwork from those early years, this acceptance started to set in.
“I was a different person then.” The art “reflected who I was at the time: pushing back on that kind of middle-of-the-road approach to life. I never liked that very much, and I think that comes across in the art I did as a kid.”
“Now, my motivation is different. I’m not drawing to shake up society or express some inner concerns or fear.”
So, if it’s no longer about angst and gravitas, where does the art come from now?
“It’s actually about expressing more of a peaceful feeling, because so much of our day-to-day lives is busy. It can be a little chaotic. When I sit down to draw or paint, it tends to be something that’s a little more peaceful, something beautiful, something kind of positive, that I see around me.”
The prime example of this—and the turning point—arrived on January 1st, 2013.
“My wife and I were walking in the woods with our younger kid, behind the elementary school in Chatham. The ground was sort of iced over; it was really beautiful, and I was watching my kid walk through the woods. And I think, ‘I really want to draw that.’ I just went home, picked up a pencil and a piece of paper and started sketching, and I was like, wow, I still have it. It’s a little rusty but it’s still there.”
Stephen knows the exact date because he wrote it on the drawing.
So it was not reminiscing on who he once was, or trying to recapture the things that were in his mind as a younger person, but rather being present with himself and his family, calm and accepting, that brought art firmly back into his life.
And there were no more grave doubts after that. Even though Stephen might change as a person, and his relationship to art might change with it, art itself would always be with him.
The idea of a second career started to take form. But consistency was key. Stephen had discovered firsthand that you can “fall out of practice, not so much technique but that [artist’s] mindset.” That is, the idea of oneself as an artist.
What builds that mindset?
“Consistency. Just setting aside time to do it on a consistent basis. Whether it’s once a week or every few days or whatever.”
Then Stephen dropped some truth on me.
“If you look at it, at least for me, you find yourself spending a lot of time on not-very-useful stuff. You’re flipping through social media or watching TV or thinking through your mental to-do list in your mind. And that’s the time you really could...if you’re intentional about it, you can focus on whatever it is, I think that you love to do, whether it’s music or art or writing.”
So making the time is huge. What else? Connecting with others.
Unlike in his college years, Stephen’s second engagement with art occurred during the time of social media. This was instrumental in demonstrating that there might actually be a second career in this creative outlet.
After building a presence on Etsy, Instagram, and Facebook, it became clear that “the artwork that I do...it does seem to appeal to at least some people. I’m getting some kind of emotion across, or some kind of feeling, and there might be a broader audience for this.”
Turns out having an audience can be a powerful motivator. When someone appreciates what you create, how does that feel?
“I think that’s what it’s all about. Most of my paintings or drawings are landscapes. They’re a scene that means something to me. But somebody in the audience, they’re not going to know the background story. But it might mean something to them that might be different; something’s getting across to them on that emotional level.”
So, it’s being able to communally share a feeling, but also frees that feeling so the viewer can feel their own way.
“I just love that. If that’s possible, I’m just thrilled.”
Even during those years without drawing, Stephen knew this about himself: “[Art is] kind of core to who I am and I want to get back into it. [...] I’m not going to do this full-on corporate thing forever? Right? What do I want to do when I grow up?”
Sometimes it takes losing something and finding it again to realize it was never really lost. The best part is coming back to it with all of the wisdom that experience confers.
Stephen’s story is an example of another mantra of his: that as long as one can find peace within, “it is never too late.”